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NASSAU, Bahamas — When leaders from the English-speaking Caribbean gathered in this sun-splashed nation Tuesday to talk economic cooperation, they raised a health issue high on their agenda for action: HIV/AIDS.

The Caribbean region faces the world’s second highest AIDS rate, trailing only sub-Saharan Africa, and officials expressed concern that spread of the pandemic will undermine their small and already fragile economies.

“Healthy Caribbean economies require healthy populations,” said Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham at opening ceremonies for a meeting of the 14-member Caribbean Community, known as Caricom. “We cannot hope to progress if our productive sector is decimated by HIV/AIDS.”

The scope of the problem is daunting.

Officials estimate that about half a million people in the Caribbean region have HIV/AIDS, with 60,000 adults and children contracting the disease last year alone. That works out to about one in every 50 people, or about 2 percent of residents.

Haiti, as the poorest nation in the Caribbean and in the Americas, faces the most severe problem, but even more prosperous and smaller English-speaking countries, such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, face relatively high rates, especially among youth and working-age people.

Recent studies estimate that if AIDS continues to spread at current speed, Trinidad and Tobago by 2005 would see its economic growth rate slip by 4 percent and its savings rate drop by 10 percent, Trinidad and Tobago officials have said.

“The health of our region is the wealth of our region,” Caricom Secretary General Edwin Carrington said during opening ceremonies of the Caricom conference late Tuesday, televised to more than a dozen nations.

Regional countries joined together in February in a Pan Caribbean Partnership for Health to try to meet the AIDS challenge, and they’ve raised about $150 million for programs so far.

But that pales next to funding needs.

A study from the University of the West Indies’ health economics department has estimated costs to implement the region’s strategic plan on HIV/AIDS at nearly $300 million a year, at least for an initial five years until the HIV/AIDS rate stabilizes.

“That’s why we are imploring donor agencies and our own governments to invest in capacity-building in the region,” from training to education and prevention programs, said Caricom’s assistant secretary general, Edward Greene.

To mobilize more resources, the Partnership plans to get involved with the proposed U.N.-backed Global Fund on AIDS and hopefully, to become one of the fund’s board members.

In addition, the group plans talks with pharmaceutical producers, likely in September, to find ways to cut costs for AZT and other drugs used to fight AIDS, officials said.

“Small developing island states … cannot do it alone,” Dominica’s health minister, Jacqueline Theodore, told the recent U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York. “The international community must be committed to the struggle.”

Still, AIDS is but one item on Caricom’s packed agenda.

The 14-member group is focused also on forming a single market, much like the European Union, so that member states can pool their resources and better compete in a global economy.

The largest of the Caricom nations has only 2 million residents. Plans call for easing movement of investment and people among the nations.

On the international front, Caricom leaders will meet this week with the presidents of Mexico and the Dominican Republic to discuss tighter cooperation, from hurricane planning to freer trade.

Plus, they will talk with the president of Haiti and the chief of the Organization of American States on ways to solve Haiti’s long-simmering political crisis, which has contributed to mass migration of Haitians — often in small, unseaworthy vessels — to the Bahamas and Florida.

Discussions also are slated on the “Third Border Initiative,” a Bush administration proposal that would boost cooperation with the Caribbean, recognizing the archipelago as the United States’ “Third Border.”

Caricom leaders begin their formal talks Wednesday and travel Thursday to Freeport on Grand Bahama Island to tour major new port and hotels.

The group’s annual summit will end late Friday.

Copyright © 2001 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Knight Ridder /Tribune Information Services. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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